Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, discusses the proposed mining bill at a news conference in Madison. Scott Bauer/AP
Wisconsin Republicans inched closer Wednesday to passing their divisive mining legislation, pushing the proposal through the state Senate by a single vote after a draining debate with Democrats who insist the measure will open the door to devastating pollution.
The bill will now go to the state Assembly. Republicans who control that chamber have scheduled a vote for next week. Passage is all but certain. From there the legislation will go to GOP Gov. Scott Walker for his signature.
Republicans have been working for nearly two years to help Gogebic Taconite dig an open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior. Their bill would make sweeping changes to the state's mining rules to clear the company's regulatory path. Republicans insist the measure would help the company create hundreds of jobs at the mine and pave the way for thousands more around the state. Walker, eager to deliver on job creation promises, wants the bill on his desk.
"What you have in front of you tonight is a 21st-century mining bill," said Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, the bill's chief Senate sponsor. "Now we have the possibility of a rebirth of an industry here in the state of Wisconsin."
Democrats and conservationists contend the job promises are wildly exaggerated. They argue the bill would loosen environmental protections and allow the mine to pollute one of the last pristine areas of the state.
"Nobody wins tonight," said Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, whose district includes the mine site. "The fact of the matter is illusion has fed the public appetite that somehow there are thousands of jobs right around the corner ? We are one vote short of a responsible state Senate that cares about the future of this state."
Under the bill, the state Department of Natural Resources would have up to 480 days to make a permitting decision. Right now, the process is open-ended. The public couldn't challenge a DNR permit decision until after it was made, and damage a mine might cause to wetlands would be presumed necessary. Applicants would have to submit a plan to compensate for damage, however, which would include a proposal for creating up to an acre and a half of new wetlands for every acre impacted.
A mining company's permit application fees would be capped at $2 million plus the DNR's expenses for delineating wetland boundaries. Tax on a company's revenue would be split 60-40 between local governments and the state. Current law imposes no cap on application fees and calls for all taxes on revenue to go to local governments to offset mining impacts.
The bill also exempts mining companies from the state's $7 per ton recycling fee on waste materials. That exemption could result in a potential loss of up to $171 million annually the state would collect from Gogebic Taconite for environmental protection programs.
Republicans proposed a nearly identical bill during the last legislative session but they had only a 17-16 edge in the Senate. The proposal failed by one vote after moderate Republican Dale Schultz of Richland Center sided with Democrats against it.
But voters handed the GOP an 18-15 majority in the Senate this past November, rendering Schultz irrelevant. Powerless to stop the bill, Democrats chose to drag out debate Wednesday.
For nearly nine hours they pounded away at the same themes they have been trumpeting for months, arguing the bill would clear the way for mining waste to contaminate area waters and rob local governments of mining tax revenue. They blasted the measure as a sweetheart deal for Gogebic Taconite and predicted the legislation would end up in court.
Republicans countered the bill balances environmental protection with job creation.
"We're at a point now where we should be looking at each and every opportunity we have and this is right in front of us ? I have no idea why we're trying to chase it away," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said.
In the end the measure passed 17-16. Spectators in the chamber's overhead gallery yelled "Boo!" and "Thanks for signing our death warrant!" as the body adjourned.
One of the bill's staunchest opponents is the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The tribe's reservation lies just north of the mine site, and members fear the mine would pollute the reservation's water and destroy their wild rice beds.
As debate began in the Senate, tribal members joined with the usual daily group of about 100 protesters two floors down in the Capitol to sing songs, play drums, dance and hold anti-mine signs.
"Scary is not the word for it," said Annie Maday, a 60-year-old Bad River tribal council member. "It's devastating. They're going to destroy my home."